by Joel Snyder
It is with deep sadness that I note the passing of Dr. Margaret Rockwell Pfanstiehl on Sept. 28, 2009.
As many of you know, Margaret was the founder of The Metropolitan Washington Ear, a closed-circuit radio-reading service based in the Washington, D.C. area. Throughout the 1970s, I had the privilege of working for the Ear as a volunteer reader of the Sunday Washington Post and other periodicals. In its tribute to Margaret, The Washington Post recounted that “After an inherited retinal disorder left her legally blind in her 30s, Margaret Pfanstiehl spent the rest of her life working to help the visually impaired read the newspaper, watch TV and enjoy theater more fully.”
The Post continued: “Margaret Gillian was born Oct. 10, 1932, near Norfolk to a naval architect who moved the family to New York and then Maryland. She graduated from the old Academy of the Holy Names in Silver Spring. As a young woman, she showed a talent for operatic singing and received a music degree from Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory in 1960.
“Her early marriage, to Justin Rockwell, ended in divorce. In 1983, she married Cody Pfanstiehl, a longtime spokesman for Metro who liked to joke that Washington's mouth married Washington's ear.
“Survivors include a son from her first marriage, Justin Rockwell Jr. of Silver Spring; three stepchildren, Carla Knepper of Glen Burnie, Julie Hamre of Bethesda and Eliot Pfanstiehl of Silver Spring; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandsons.”
In 1981, Margaret and Cody Pfanstiehl developed The Ear's audio description program, the first ongoing description service in the world. Margaret and Cody, along with a core group of Ear volunteers (myself included), began offering description at Washington's Arena Stage and soon, other area theaters. Later, the Ear produced the descriptions that were a part of the pilot for what became WGBH's Descriptive Video Service. These efforts, which helped make television accessible to those with vision problems, earned her an Emmy Award in 1990. Mitch Pomerantz, president of American Council of the Blind, called her "one of the pioneers in the audio description arena."
Dr. Pfanstiehl, a Silver Spring resident, died at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington of lung disease. She was the recipient of many community honors and in August received a Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability award for lifetime contributions to the visually impaired.
"It's no great honor to be blind," she once told The Washington Post, "but it's more than a nuisance and less than a disaster. Either you're going to fight like hell when your sight fails or you're going to stand on the sidelines for the rest of your life."
Margaret and Cody (Cody passed away in 2007) were in great demand as trainers of describers throughout this country and around the world. Their contributions to the field of audio description cannot be over-emphasized; Margaret will be missed by those who had the opportunity to learn from her and work with her -- and by the millions of people around the world who have benefitted from audio description.
A celebration of Margaret’s life will be held in the coming weeks. For more information, visit the American Council of the Blind's Audio Description Project web site at www.adinternational.org.